Review: Theatre of the Unimpressed by Jordan Tannahill

Theatre of the UnimpressedThere’s a bookend at the beginning of your journey. You travel along the road, being transformed or maybe not. The other bookend arrives and your journey is finished. “Finished” is different from “complete.” There might have been many more possibilities during your journey, that worked out or didn’t work out matters not. You have to keep moving forward.

That’s what I remembered while reading Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama by Jordan Tannahill. The central question of this book is why theater is boring. Each chapter highlights the aliveness of the form. The book questions the criteria by which theater is judged. Tannahill provides examples of the good, some of which can be found on the Internet. It is a thoughtful, quick read. Once I picked it up, I kept reading. Sleep was my only obstacle.

Tannahill’s voice makes his ideas accessible. Rather than condescending to the reader, he writes as if he were sitting across from you at a coffee shop. That’s a marked difference from other theater writers who still are working hard to impress their college professors.

What saddened me is how the book forced me to remember my days studying theater in college. I thought back to creating and performing a scene for a directing class. During our performance, I asked actors to work against me as I played the part of a director. I stepped loudly on platforms as I came down to “confront” the actors. It was an attempt to use sound to convey emotion. Then I began to cry.

The teacher tried to stop the scene because he didn’t realize he was looking at a “scene.” The actors didn’t break character. They tied me a chair and left the room. It was in that moment of absurdity the teacher realized it was a “scene.”

The same teacher told me to read Camino Real by Tennessee Williams. Another teacher privately recommended Unbalancing Acts by Richard Foreman. It was a new book back in 1993, when all of this took place. I read the book, and I still have it.

These are the things I wish I had been able to build upon, but theater remained elusive after I graduated. Some of that was my own fault. However, there was also pressure as a playwright to write what Tannahill calls The Well-Made Play. He defines it as a story “in which most of the story takes place before the onstage action, the action itself is a series of plot twists adhering to an Aristotelian narrative arc and the play’s climax comes at the eleventh hour, leaving just enough time for a satisfying catharsis.”

If you don’t write this structure, who will produce your work? As a playwright I needed to spend more time literally walking around a stage. Generally speaking, people have wanted playwrights to take a passive role in productions. If you submit your work, what do you learn? If you are sending your play thousands of miles away and you can’t see it up on it’s feet, what are you getting from that other than another notch on your resume? To break free from that idea, playwrights have to work directly with directors and actors. At least that’s how it was for me.

I was bored with The Well-Made Play back then and I still am. He’s right. It’s one of the reasons why theater is unnecessary. Yet, there are fewer opportunities for plays that are not The Well-Made Play.

I also felt a twinge of jealousy while reading this book. I wish I had the ability to see the kind of theater he described. The good news for readers is that some of the groups and performances Tannahill references are on the Internet. Hopefully more theaters will see the benefit of broadcasting performances. Broadcasts will not replace live performances, but it is a way to document and communicate ideas about theater to a worldwide audience.

Whenever Tannahill referred to someone, I looked them up on YouTube to see if I could watch a performance. Hopefully theater will see the benefit of broadcasting performances and integrating the internet into shows.

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Natalie Goldberg and the Art of Being Present

Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the BonesI love this period of time. I don’t think I’ve ever worked this hard. Since June of 2015, I’ve been pushing out a new project. It’s as unpredictable as the news of this year, and that’s no exaggeration.

To recap, I dropped out of my extracurricular life activities in the middle of 2015. I’ve already mentioned the reorganization process from last summer. As I was doing that, I also began writing a series of essays. They came out, one after another. I allowed myself maximum freedom – no outline or expectation. Just be present and write. It has turned out to be the raw material for a new project. After all the energy has been exhausted, I will edit and shape this material. Right now, the important thing is to be present and write.

Be Present and Write. I learned that through Jack Kerouac. And you know how one writer leads you to another? That’s how I found Natalie Goldberg. I was living in San Francisco in my 20s. I don’t remember where I bought her books, “Writing Down the Bones” and “Wild Mind.” It is quite possible I bought them at City Lights. I’m not sure. Both books were an immense help. It was difficult to write after the breakdown. Plus blending spirituality and writing was my truth as well.

I thought of Natalie Goldberg recently. There are only a handful of writers whose work has stuck in my brain for decades. I haven’t written about how much her work has meant to me. When I’ve talked about things like that in the past, I’ve gotten dissertations in response lecturing me about various aspects of a writer’s work. Those kinds of responses steal the connection a writer has with a reader. The work meant something to me, something I’ve carried for many years. That response is mine; it’s personal. To invalidate such a response with a “you don’t know what you’re talking about but I do so here let me enlighten you because you are a blazing idiot” is terrible. So often those discussions come from ego rather than heart.

I don’t mind sharing among strangers, friends or colleagues, but it has to be respectful and equal. We can all learn from personal responses; however, the minute someone plays expert, the connection is lost. It used to happen so much in theater. That’s why I’m sensitive to it now.

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Organizing and Planning for 2016

Organizing Writing FilesIt’s shaping up to be a busy year. As I mentioned earlier, I spent much of 2015 organizing my writing from the past 20-25 years. It definitely got me out of the doldrums. I didn’t realize that I had written so much. Drafts and drafts of stories, plays, essays and poems are now tucked into colorful folders. I also created a corresponding filing system on my computer. All the duplicate drafts have been discarded. Documents trapped in out of date software have been opened and updated into PDF files.

The result is that I feel more in control.

As I combed through my work, I was careful not to get tied up in sentimentality. I didn’t read every draft or reminisce about where I was when I wrote it. Although my memories of writing were sometimes quite vivid, I chose to ignore that and move forward. Keep it moving, keep it moving.

My next step was to place work into the following piles: Projects to work on, Possibilities, Scraps and Completed. All stories, plays, essays and poems fit into these categories. How best to determine what went where? I went on my gut feeling. A part of me knew what had potential and what was best left behind.

The result is that I now have a list of projects I will work on, probably for the next few years.

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Book Review: How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh

How To Love Thich Nhat HanhHow to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh. Parallax Press. 2015. 128 pages.

Winter makes me gravitate toward the spiritual. Simple truths mix well with leafless trees and frozen ground. Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, “How to Love” is the perfect book to use for meditation and reflection during the season.

It’s the kind of book that provides you with something different each time you read it. The passages that struck close to the bone this time were about the body. I’ve heard over and over again recently that the body is a requirement for manifesting ideas.

It seems like common sense, but look at how much war we create within our bodies. Diet and exercise that often doubles as physical punishment are not done out of love. As a young woman, I was trained to discount my true identity and play the role given to me by society. I could only receive love if I was regarded as beautiful, but my physical appearance was never enough. I was never good enough for love, which is why I went on endless diets and hid when I didn’t feel pretty.

I never felt pretty.

Middle age is the great equalizer. Some people claim I look the same as I used to look. I don’t know if that’s true. What is important to me now is that I make my body home, a concept the Buddhist monk contemplates in his book. “If you can accept your body, you have a chance to see your body as your home… As you practice building a home in yourself, you become more and more beautiful.”

This beauty appeals to me, as it incorporates the spirit. I look forward to claiming more of my true identity in 2016.

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Looking Back at 2015

Years from now, I will look back at 2015 and the word harbinger will come to mind. Back in January, I knew I would be making changes. I wanted change, but it felt like I was trapped in a mud pit. I couldn’t make a move without sliding further downward.

This year, I’m proud of following my intuition. Throughout the past 12 months, I kept getting direct advice during meditation. Each time I acted on that advice, it was a lesson in faith. I didn’t know the end result. All I could do was follow directions and hope for the best.

Alabama sunset (Photo by Laura Axelrod)

Alabama sunset (Photo by Laura Axelrod)

It is much harder to be spontaneous in that way. Society tells us to make goals and plan ahead. Rarely are people encouraged to simply take the next step and believe. That’s what I learned in 2015. As long as I know the next right thing to do, it will work out.

By putting one foot in front of the other, I ended up having some amazing experiences. I couldn’t have predicted any of it back in January. Had I known, I would’ve been completely overwhelmed. I’m grateful I chose this path for 2015.

Sorting through my writing, organizing and filing close to 25 years of work has brought me immense amounts of peace. Throughout the summer and into the fall, I took breaks from writing to create a system that will carry me into the next few years. I had no idea I wrote as much as I did. It turns out I can account for my life through the pages in my files. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment.

Most of all, 2015 will be the year I began to come out of hiding. Wearing a cloak of invisibility is no way to live. Each person is obligated to live fully. Enjoy being you. That’s not narcissism. If you hold back, you can’t contribute to society.

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Book Review: Reynold Levy and Drama at Lincoln Center

They Told Me Not To Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center by Reynold Levy. PublicAffairs. 2015. 376 pages.
Reynold-Levy-Lincoln-Center
“Reynold, you are a competitive guy. I am sure you will secure this offer, and the place will be lucky to have you. But are you sure you want this headache of a job, in view of all that you are learning about the poisonous environment at Lincoln Center?” Elizabeth Levy asked her husband.

As Reynold Levy explains in “They Told Me Not To Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center,” he wanted to become president of Lincoln Center for a myriad of reasons. Levy was attracted to the glamour of its world-class artists who performed there. But he also wanted to expand Lincoln Center’s outreach to children, particularly those receiving one or more forms of public assistance. “No kid should grow up in the cultural capital of the world without being exposed to the best in the performing and visual arts,” Levy writes.

The challenge was getting beyond the strong egos and institutional politics that plagued Lincoln Center. Board meetings for the Lincoln Center Redevelopment were especially tense. Not only did the veritable New York City institution need a physical makeover, it required a spiritual renewal if it would continue to survive.

**

Explaining how Lincoln Center works requires a treasure map filled with hidden clues, secrets and traps. As Levy explains, resident organizations include the Julliard School, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, the New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center Theatre, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Each of the eleven resident organizations operates as 501c3 entity, which included a separate board of directors, mission statement and operating budget.

Prior to Levy’s arrival, Lincoln Center’s budget was balanced because the facility delayed much-needed maintenance on the space. He writes how some resident organizations were barely making ends meet, though the facility would manage the costs itself if they deferred renovations.

The redevelopment committee was set up with preposterous rules. For example, all resident organizations had to unanimously approve of any decision regarding the physical redevelopment of Lincoln Center. One veto would prevent action from being taken. Stagnation was the result. No one worked together.

**

Meanwhile, Levy brought an impressive resume to the table. He was a chief executive officer of the 92nd Street Y, the International Rescue Committee, as well as the architect and president of AT&T Foundation. He was chairperson for two private foundations, Nathan Cummings and Charles H. Revson.

Perhaps just as important, Levy has been in the role of a scrappy outsider. Coming from a financially strapped family, Levy details how he put himself through Hobart College. He took extra jobs and stayed out of debt. His father attempted to help out with a small amount of money. After a check bounced, Levy kindly told his father that the checks were no longer necessary.

Levy’s father also gave him an appreciation for music and dance. Listening to Dizzy Gillespie on an old record player, his father would invite him to draw what the composer might’ve been thinking. The interpretation of sound through magic markers provided Levy with a creative outlet and an understanding of culture that went far beyond being an observer.

These childhood lessons followed Levy throughout his time at Lincoln Center. After Levy got the job, he showed up to work on his first day as president of Lincoln Center driving his father’s four-door 1993 Mercury Marquis. Before his father died, Levy promised him that he would drive the car for as long as it lasted. The security guard stopped him, confused by the nine-year old car. Levy’s predecessors drove new cars to Lincoln Center. This old car was a symbolic difference.

**

Lincoln Center by Taga.

Lincoln Center by Taga.

Levy made vast changes to Lincoln Center. The governance structure and economic model desperately needed updating. He sought to expand the Board of Directors to include people living outside of New York City. Most of all, he wanted to open Lincoln Center for weddings, company product introductions and memorials. Not only did the facility raise revenue, it became an essential community space.

Rather than rely on talkbacks for community involvement, Lincoln Center developed Charles Benenson Grove, an area for artists and the public to commune informally. Bringing the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week to the facility also helped the community to see Lincoln Center in a new way.

“I endeavored not only to edify through extensive precirculated reading material and often through presentations by board committee chairs and senior staff, but also to lighten up the boardroom. Why just leave brochures on the seats of trustees, when staff costumed to impersonate a Shakespearean character, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or a jazz trombonist could hand the relevant literature to trustees as they came off the elevator? Why just announce the renewal of the Big Apple Circus residency in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, when one could have the silent clown Grandma suddenly enter the boardroom, sit on the laps of selected trustees, engage in some hijinks, and unfurl a ‘Thank You Lincoln Center’ banner?”

**

Although the tone in the beginning of Levy’s book might make readers think it will be one long exhale of resume accomplishments and humblebrags, this book has an edge. Levy doesn’t hold back on his blunt assessments of people and their skills. Assets and liabilities of prestigious organizations and their management are all on the page for everyone to read. At times it’s refreshing; other instances can seem brutal and maybe even unnecessary. It’s easy to let your mind wander to the question, “What’s the other side of the story?”

He does, however, use these lessons to illustrate lessons in nonprofit arts management and leadership. The last chapter is devoted to lessons he learned.

He warns against neglecting valuable employees. “Their morale, their sense of importance and self-worth, and their belief in having contributed to the success of the enterprise matter a great deal to whether they stay or take flight.” Amen. Losing valuable employees can be hazardous to the wellbeing of your organization. In many instances, the only person you have to blame when valuable employees leave is yourself.

Executives and senior managers at arts organizations are prone to seeing their colleagues as a means to an end. Levy reminds readers that employees are not pawns who only exist to do the bidding for their seniors. It’s simply not enough to engage in cursory niceties. Trust, leadership and people skills are vital; yet in the nonprofit arts world, they are in short supply.

Levy’s book is not just for people in the New York metro area. It provides lessons for anyone interested in the performing arts.

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Behind the Scenes

A freeze warning was issued for the Deep South yesterday. I can’t believe it’s November already. Back in January, an intuitive friend of mine told me that this would be the year of new beginnings. I scoffed at the time, completely unaware of her accuracy rate.

It’s true that 2015 has been a milestone in many ways. Earlier this year, I pared down to the bare essentials. I quit a number of things that meant a great deal to me. Deadlines, self-imposed and otherwise, have kept my adrenalin flowing for over three years. When I think about it now, I’m astonished at my creative output. It was time for a break to regroup and set new goals for myself.

I spent two months reading classic books that have been on my list for years, including “To Kill a Mockingbird.” How did I live in Alabama for so long without reading Harper Lee’s novel? After I rectified that situation, I set up a filing system for writing projects, drafts, emails and other essential papers. While I was doing that, I created a multi-year career plan that included doable goals. I can definitely track my progress with this new plan.

Meanwhile, I also had some extraordinary experiences during the summer. I don’t want to say too much about what’s been happening yet, except that it’s changed how I view myself, as well as my capabilities. I think the key word is empowerment. And I’ve gotten plenty of encouragement and support from people around me that I’m on the right path.

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Book Review: Write It When I’m Gone by Thomas M. Defrank

Write It When Im GoneWritten by former Newsweek correspondent Thomas M. Defrank, Write It When I’m Gone offers vignettes into the unvarnished thoughts of President Gerald R. Ford. The first few chapters provide a snapshot of Ford’s political career, as observed first-hand by Defrank. After that, Defrank details Ford’s thought about other political figures past and present.

Considering how Ford tends to be overlooked, it can be a great way to ease into studying this former president. Defrank drew a detailed depiction of the man’s personality and thought process behind his decisions. Is the book dramatic and spell-binding? Not really. Certainly not like Vietnam or the Watergate era. A man who has never cheated on his wife? I can only imagine others might think: how boring. But Defrank humanizes Ford and his colleagues to such an extent that I found the final chapters quietly moving. All too often, politicians are treated like objects to be poked and prodded by the public. Defrank seems to want readers to see Ford as a man with foibles, health problems and occasional grumpiness.

I bought this book a while ago, and I’m glad I finally got the chance to read it. I won’t be trading it in anytime soon.

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Welcome

Welcome!

From my experience with blogs, the first post is the hardest. It’s time to clear that hurdle.

This blog will serve as a touchstone for my projects, as well as a reminder to myself to stay focused on my work.

There have been so many changes lately, and people only know me through social media or work I’ve done for other publications. This site will feature my creative work, which will include films, voiceover work and writing. I am sure there will also be a few surprises along the way.

I won’t offer comments for my blog entries. In my experience, it takes too long to weed out spammers. But you can always reach me through the contact page of this site.

Mark Twain once said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.”

With that, my first post is finished.

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